Recovering a Sense of Communon in the Church

I worte this essay for the Annual Publication of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas that is due out soon.

One can hardly deny that our world is becoming more and more secular in its view of all things. One needs only look at the news to see how people are turning away from the God of Creation and turning towards the gods of materialism. Secularization is a cancer that affects every aspect of our human existence and dare I say it even infects the Church of Jesus Christ.

Over the past few years we have had endless debates over the Statutes of the Archdiocese and focused much of our attention on the wide-spread concentration of our parishes on the defense of their “rights”, “interests”, and “property” from the hierarchy and the clergy. This reveals a deep secularization of the mind and consciousness that we truly become apprehensive and concerned about the future of our Church. It is this very mind set that is causing our young people to leave the Church where no one spends the time to educate them on what it means to be a member and where we hardly ever hear sermons on how to deepen the inner life and a renewal of the spirituality of the Church and we spend endless hours on festivals, banquets, jubilees and financial campaigns and less and less time on our spiritual life and participation in the Sacraments of the Church.

One such example of this is our “tradition” of a once-a-year obligation for the reception of Holy Communion. St. John of Kronstadt condemned this practice a lukewarm and pietistic and said that it lowered the life of the Church to mere custom. We have a deep spiritual crisis in our country and in our Church and at the very heart of this crisis is secularism; we are divorcing God from the whole of our lives.

The question of the sacraments of the Church has key significance in that they form the principle of unity, the unity that brings us together a community and the system by which we are brought together and not separated. Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald, Dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology had this to say on this image of the Eucharist as being the system that brings us together. “When an Orthodox attends the Divine Liturgy, it is not as an isolated person who comes simply to hear a sermon. Rather he comes as a member of a Community of Faith who participates in the very purpose of the Church, which is the worship of the Holy Trinity. Therefore the Eucharist is truly the center of the life of the Church and the principal means of Spiritual Development, both for the individual Christian and the Church as a whole.” In the sacraments of the Church we fund the tools necessary for the change and renewal of our minds and hearts. We should strive to use these tools to help us reverse this move toward secularization and recover our religious and ecclesiastical understanding. The Eucharist is the center of life in the Orthodox Church. The Eucharist is the completion of all of the Churches other Sacraments and the source and the goal of all of the Churches doctrines and institutes.

In the early Church communion of all the faithful was a self-evident norm. Corporate communion was seen not only as an act of personal piety and personal sanctification but also coming from ones very membership in the Church, the fulfillment and “actualization” of that very membership. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Church, the sacrament of the assembly, the sacrament of unity. St. John Chrysostom writes, “He mixed Himself with us, and dissolved His body in us so that we may constitute a wholeness, be a body united to the Head.” Participation in the Eucharist was the single sign and criterion of membership in the early Church. The member of the Church is one who is in communion with the Church. Early liturgical service books will show that not only the catechumens were dismissed from the assembly but those who were not to receive communion.

How did we get so far from the mark? Why is it that in nine out of ten Liturgies celebrated, no one comes forward to approach the chalice? Is no one else amazed by this or concerned? How did the once a year reception of communion become the accepted norm of our Church? How did we get such an individualistic understanding of communion? I think that we can find the answer in the pious relationship we have toward the Eucharist. We fear that we will profane the Mystery. After all the, Church teaches that “the one who eats and drinks unworthily drinks and eats his condemnation.” (1 Corinthians 11:29) “Neither the Fathers nor the liturgical texts can supply us with any encouragement for non-partaking of the Mysteries, nor do they even hint at such a practice. In emphasizing the holiness of communion and its ‘awful’ nature, in calling for a worthy preparation for it, the Fathers never endorsed nor approved the wide-spread idea of today that since the Mystery is holy and awful, one must not approach it too often. In the Fathers, the view of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church, of her unity, fulfillment and growth was self-evident” (Schmemann).

“We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy… we would desire even more the medicine for our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do… considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility… for when they receive, they think of themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them” (St. John Cassian).

As we have seen there is nothing on our tradition that justifies our practice of infrequent communion. This new tradition is leading to a decay of our Church life and a deviation from the foundations of the Church. We simply attend liturgy now thinking that nothing more is required of us then to just sit and listen. We feel that once a year we need to fulfill our obligation and have a fast confession during Holy Week and then, feeling that we are now worthy, receive communion. If we desire a real renewal of the Church it will come from hunger for the Eucharist.

So how can we faithfully prepare for communion? What steps must we take to make this a reality in our lives? We see that two Sacraments have been joined together. We find it is necessary to receive sacrament of penance before one can receive communion.

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann in his paper to the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America states that the “practice, and I repeat once more, a natural and self-evident one in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of the laity, different in this from the communion of the clergy, is impossible without the sacrament of penance, so that confession in an obligatory condition – always and in all cases – for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.”

What is the essence of the Sacrament of Penance? The Sacrament was the “sacrament of reconciliation with the Church of those excommunicated from her.” In other words those who have been excluded from the Eucharistic assembly. In short, the Sacrament of Penance was the sacrament of reconciliation with the Church for those who were excommunicated from the Church for definite sins, those clearly defined in the canonical tradition. This is not to say that members of the Church or the non-excommunicated are sinless on the contrary as the Church teaches that no human being is sinless. The prayers of forgiveness and remission are an important part of the Liturgy itself. “…and do not despise the sinner but have instituted repentance for salvation… Forgive us every transgression voluntary and involuntary…” (Trisagion Prayer). “…prostrate ourselves before your compassions toward our sins and the sinful errors of the people… Make us worthy to bring you prayers…” (First Prayer of the Faithful). “… that regarding our prayer, you will cleanse our souls and bodies from all defilement f flesh and spirit and grant us to stand innocent and uncondemned before your holy altar…” (Second Prayer of the Faithful). The Church has always considered the Sacrament itself “for the remission of sins.” So we see here a distinction between the sins that excommunicated one from the Church and the sinfulness that we are incapable of avoiding. The sinfulness of humanity is dissolved in the Church’s liturgy and is the “sinfulness that the Church confesses in the ‘prayers of the faithful’ before the offering of the Holy Gifts” (Schmemann). We believe that when we ask for the forgiveness of our “sins voluntary and involuntary, those in word and deed, committed knowingly and unknowingly” we are forgiven. Communion is given for the “remission of sins” and for the “healing of souls and body.” We need to be aware of our total unworthiness and understand that the gift we are about to receive can never be deserved by any earthly being.

The whole point behind the preparation for communion is not to make us feel worthy but to reveal to us the great “abyss” of God’s mercy and love. “Before the Lord’s Table the only ‘worthiness’ of the communicant is that he has been and realized his bottomless ‘unworthiness.’ This indeed, is the beginning of salvation” (Schmemann).

To use the words of Fr. Alexander, the making of sacrament of penance obligatory “mutilates” the doctrine of the Church. It creates two categories of members those who have been excommunicated from the Eucharist, as the “very content and fulfillment of membership.” And those whose membership is defined by paying dues and other secular materialistic definitions. It also mutilated the doctrine of Communion by making it the Sacrament of only the few worthy ones and not the Sacrament of the Church, of sinners who by the “infinite mercy of Christ” are transformed into “His Body.” It also replaces the genuine preparation for Communion, genuine inner repentance, with a three minute confession that makes one feel entitled to communion.

Interior conversion is what the whole of the Christian life is about. All of the practices of the Church are aimed at a transformation of our entire being, that it is a deep rooted change that makes us a different person. This is not something that one can do overnight, it takes a lifetime of struggle and practice. The Sacraments of the Church are designed as tools that will aid us in this struggle or dare I say journey to the Cross of Christ. The grace that we receive in the Sacraments of the Church will enable us and give us strength for the journey. Strength to pick up our cross and to follow Him. He is the way the truth and light, anything else is mere folly.

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